Ohio's Shame; Caring For Ohio's Veterans remains a Shame!

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vet_seal1 Ohio’s Shame; Caring For Ohio’s Veterans Shouldn’t Be So Political
By Brian Rothenberg, Executive Director – Progress Ohio
Mar 21st, 2008

Commentary by Major Robert L. Hanafin, U.S. Air Force-Retired, VT Editorial Board of Directors.

About a year ago, an associate of mine in Ohio within the progressive community wrote a throughly researched and detailed expose on the shame of how Ohio’s Veterans are treated by the VA, caught up in a bureaucratic maze of stagnant VSOs, stagnant county Vet Service Offices, and political rangling that amounts to nothing but one party or another partisan party trying to out do each other in wrapping themselve with the flag instead of wrapping Old Glory around Ohio, and America’s Veterans.

Mr. Rothenberg mentions VT in his article, so I contacted the two gents who run the progressive movement in Ohio that got several local, state, and national officials elected and first gave Mr. Rothenberg kudos for such a well written expose despite him not being a Veteran, and secondly to tell them that over a year since that expose NOTHING HAS CHANGED.
     

Example: I received this info from an associate who also launched a complaint with the state, the VA inspector general and the office of one of Ohio’s two Senators to wit,

Dear Veteran so and so,

Enclosed please find a copy of a whenever they sent it reply we received from the VA Inspector General, Department of Veteran Affairs. This correspondence was written in response to my recent inquiry on your behalf, and the info is self-explanatory.

My office will provide you with any final correspondence we receive from the Office of the Inspector General, but please feel free to contact my GS-5 staff rep with any questions.

Readers, so much for political sincerity to our needs and concerns as Veterans. Having the lowest civil service worker on a Congressional staff who is fresh out of college (at least he/she is not fresh out of high school) handly Veterans complaints that go to the Inspector General level is beyond DUMB and insenstivie it is down right insulting.

Needless to say, regardless which party this politico is from he just lost quite a few VOTES next time around no matter what he promises.

To add insult to injury this is what the Ohio Senator said was self-explanatory.

The Honorable Sherrod Brown
Blah, blah, blah

Dear Senator Brown/Voinovich/WHOEVER

This is in response to your sometime in mid-2009 letter on behalf of some Ohio Vet who alleged poor communication and denial of care at the VA Medical Center in Dayton, Ohio. The VA Congressional Liaison Service forwarded your letter to the Office of the Inspector General about a month after you sent it.

The Ohio Vet initially contacted the VA OIC about two months ago, and we initiated an inquiry with the Network Director of the VA Health Care System of Ohio, who has jurisdiction over the Dayton VAMC. Once we receive and review the response from the VAMC Director’ who denied the care in the first place, we will provide you with the results (in about a year or two or ten – emphasis added).

Thank you for your interest in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Have a Department of Veterans Affairs Day, Good Day,

As it is official cover our ass policy at the VA, Senator, someone otherthan the official making the decisions will sign this letter. Give us a call if you desire to know who that underling is so we can blame him/her if something goes wrong, so that upper level management is not helf accountable.

POINT: VA senior officials rarely if ever sign their own correspondence even when it goes to Senators, leaves one to wonder who signs letters of Congress critters much less Veterans. Why are VA officials ashamed to sign their own correspondence? When I was a military officer, I was PROUD to sign my name on any policy decision I made, and more than willing to accept responsibility and accountability even if I were WRONG.

Though the focus here is Ohio, and we will continue to pick on Ohio in several follow up articles, readers from other states in the nation are welcome to take this as a STANDARD to measure performance and treatment of Vets in your state to decide if it rates SHAME as in Ohio or Honorable mention.

Robert L. Hanafin
Major, U.S. Air Force-Retired
Editorial Board of Directors
VT News Network

veterans_administration_augusta1aI did not repost Brian’s entire article not only due to copyright concerns, but because I wanted to focus on those issues that have local, state, and national impact for America’s Veterans.

Ohio’s Shame; Caring For Ohio’s Veterans Shouldn’t Be So Political By Brian Rothenberg, Executive Director – Mar 21st, 2008/Update 2009 by Major Hanafin.

Critics of the Department of Veterans Affairs (DAV) rightly point out that Veterans benefits at the national and state level are plagued with a systemic and political bureaucracy that puts care for veterans on the back-burner both at the national and Ohio levels.

I would add that the motive for this back-burner attitude is that the focus at VA for the past decade has been on COST CUTTING not VETERAN SERVICE. That was true in 2008 when Brian wrote this, and it is true today more than ever, because change in partisan politics in no way has changed this attitude within an entrenached bureaucracy and the VSOs that uphold it.

voinovichphoto2

In rare kudos for U.S. Senator George Voinovich of Ohio (R.OH), he rightly points out in a letter to the Senate Budget Committee that the VA’s pending pension and compensation claims were up almost 6 percent from March of 2007 and that 27 percent of claims have been pending for more than 180 days, along with a 50 percent increase since 2003 in claims requiring a disability review which request increases in time and resources.

Voinovich said in his letter to Sen. Kent Conrad (D.ND) that the number of filed claims has increased 45 percent from 578,773 in 2000 to 838,141 in 2007.
According to the VT’s website, more than 200,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan had been treated at VA medical facilities according to a Government Accountability Office analysis, which is three times what the VA had originally projected. The GAO study said more than one-third of the cases involved mental health conditions including PTSD, acute depression and substance abuse.

Outsourcing Veterans Claims to VSOs

When a County office files claims, they then use an outsourced system. Ohio does not employ its own service officers who follow Ohio veteran’s claims – instead traditionally that has been a function of the powerful and politically impactful Ohio veterans’ organizations even though 90 percent of Ohio veterans do not belong to these groups .

unitedcentertop5_400

Services for Ohio veterans go through 88-county offices and are processed in the VA regional offices. But the services rely on National Service Officers (NSO) given free office space by the VA and paid for by Ohio taxpayers but staffed by the various Veterans service agencies. In 2006, Ohio spent over $1.5 million dollars spread among the:

* American Legion, $302,328
* Am vets, $287,919
* Veterans of Foreign Wars, $246,615
* Disabled American Veterans, $216,308
* Vietnam Veterans of America,$185,954
* Marine Corp League,$115,972
* Catholic War Veterans,$57,900
* Meritorious Order of the Purple Heart, $56,377
* Army Navy Union, $55,012
* Jewish War Veterans $29,715
* American Ex P.O.W., $25,030

In a nutshell, when a claim is received in the VA regional office from the county offices for veterans’ services, it is assigned to one of the National Service Officers (NSOs) in Columbus near the VA Regional Office or in it, who is there to act as the advocate for the veteran before the VA. That is why in essence, Ohio has outsourced the advocate role to these traditional groups.

[Major Hanafin’s Note: Remember the series of recent article I posted on the change in law allowing Veterans to seek professional legal representation in the VA Appeals process, now WE understand in simple terms why the old guard VSOs are against such a legal advocacy role that they want an ineffective monopoly on to continue].

But in reading the Subcommittee reports of the Veterans Study Council it becomes clear that a veteran is at the mercy of the resources of the County in which they live and the efficiency of the veterans organization they choose to track and advocate their claims. There appears to be little if no accountability on the process for follow through.

small_spada
What is disturbing is that after working with the various county veterans’ offices and advocates, as well as the national groups on a comprehensive study that identified these concerns, Republican State Sen. Bob Spada rushed to the table with S.B. 289 which made no recommendations to fix the VA claims processing system but did recommend that “the several veterans’ organizations” should get more support.

But the symbolism of a department has not necessarily diminished the bureaucratic problems at the federal level. The question remains, will Ohio fall into the same PR trap?

While Ted Strickland Administration’s pushes for the cabinet-level Veterans’ department is not necessarily a bad sign – if anything it is needed, the legislation written by Sen. Spada appears to have very little impact on the processing of claims which appears to be the real problem for Ohio’s veterans. Instead it deals mostly with changing a Governor’s [Veterans] office into a Governor’s [Veterans] department [and sybolism does not fix systemic problems with the VA – Major Hanafin] . In fact, representatives of Governor Ted Strickland on the panel [none representing younger Veterans groups like IAVA or IVAW] informed some concerned veterans that the legislation creating the new department would likely not include increased oversight of the county and NSO (veterans group) system.

As the bill stands now, after months of study and data about the problems of veterans services, a Legislative Service Commission analysis of the new departmental functions that Sen. Spada included in the bill are limited to:

* Developing telephone answering services and a website.
* Outreach efforts at conferences and fairs.
* Advertising services in print, radio and television.
* Broadly calling for the development and improved benefits and services for veterans.
* Searching for administrative policies to unify funding, delivery and accountability of policy with no formal recommendations.
* Maintaining a cordial relationship with both the VA and several veterans’ organizations.
* And adds the Ohio Veterans’ Home Agency and the Ohio War Orphans Scholarship Board to the Department.

Maintaining a cordial relationship with both the VA and several veterans’ organizations.

[Major Hanafin’s translation of maintaining cordial relations with VA means defending the systemic problems of the VA instead of fixing them, and several selective VSOs means allowing those VSOs that are most ineffective in fixing the systemic problems retain a monopoly over what’s been outsourced to them].

You can’t help but think that if this were education funding or other pet peeves of Columbus conservatives, Ohio’s Broad & High crowd would be preaching on the legislative floor for more accountability on how Ohio taxpayer money is being spent in classrooms – on the outcomes-based budgeting that conservatives around Capitol Square preach like a Buddhist mantra.

But it is not.

This is about veterans, and veterans are about the flag and neither liberal nor conservative legislators will take on such a bureaucracy borne from the battlefields of returning vets who spawned the complicated relationships of such diverse organizations in the first place.

No one including is arguing about the role and need for these veterans organizations to exist and flourish. But in fact, these veterans’ organizations do need prodding and accountability for processing veteran claims as any outsourced service should.

Ohio grants for the NSO officers in VA regional offices should be monitored and judged based on information that looks at the per capita amount of veterans here and in other states and sets up a compliance report with oversight by the new Ohio Department of Veterans Affairs.

It seems logical and in-line with all other Ohio government expenditures that the department should exercise oversight and tracking of all VA claims. That is the surest path away from a bottom ranking in services to Ohio veterans.

If Ohio will not hire its own compliance officers at the VA regional office, which given the clout of veterans groups is politically dead on arrival, at the very least the various service organizations that provide NSO services should be monitored by the newly created department based on:

* Number of claims filed, starting at the county level, and continuing through the NSO level;
* Completeness and accuracy of claims;
* Average time to resolve claims;
* Average dollars paid out to Ohio veterans per capita;
* Communication and reporting with county offices from the NSO regarding claims status.

[Major Hanafin’s comments: I would add that in order to break this strangle hold of outsourcing monopolized by old guard VSOs that younger, and more energetic Veterans groups forming to fill the vacume just as returning Vietnam Veterans did when they formed Vietnam Veterans Against the War and later Vietnam Veterans of America must unite and form groups that best serve the interests of younger Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Iraq Veterans Against the War among others. These young and energetic groups need to train their own cadre of NSOs and that is a role that can be mentored by the old guard. That generation of Vets with most to lose in any battle with systemic problems of the VA at least since Vietnam have done so in their own interests and preservation. The key is not to do it by alienating our fathers, mothers, grand fathers, and grand mothers who also choose to serve for so few of us today do. I must strongly agree with Brian that oversite of VSOs is an essential ingrediant but so is politicians listening to what younger Veterans have to say, and that means representation on local, county, and Ohio State level Veterans’ committees now dominated by our grand parents].

The Veterans Service Organizations

Certainly some who are active in veterans’ services groups who receive money from the State of Ohio may bristle at Brian’s opinion and couch these views as an unpatriotic attack on soldiers who have paid their dues to their nation.

But the fact of the matter is that this is not a debate over liquor licenses and bingo permits at the local lodge – these issues involve serious veterans’ needs and claims involving their everyday lives.

[Major Hanafin’s comment: Brain I nor no one on the VT staff could have said it better AND the truth in what you say is what will hit a nerve not only with the increasing number of younger Vets returning to Ohio, but the decreasing number of Old Guard vets who must take heed and learn to coexist or we all achieve nothing].

If the process is outsourced to these organizations [VSOs] – then so be it. But to not hold the same accountability standards on services for these veterans paid for by Ohio taxpayer dollars is benign legislative neglect of the stewardship of Ohio tax dollars.

Ohio S.B. 289 seems to be a rushed piece of legislation – the kind of thing legislators take and run with in an effort to wrap the flag around themselves in the next election cycle.

But the stark reality is that true patriotism would wrap that flag around a wounded veteran, a homeless veteran, a jobless veteran, a mentally troubled veteran – to expedite services, not worry about the politics of veterans group funding and future political support.

Save the politics for Novembers this year and in future years.

In closing, for now, Brian are you sure you are not a Veteran?

Robert L. Hanafin
Major, U.S. Air Force-Retired
Member, Progress Ohio

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Readers are more than welcome to use the articles I've posted on Veterans Today, I've had to take a break from VT as Veterans Issues and Peace Activism Editor and staff writer due to personal medical reasons in our military family that take away too much time needed to properly express future stories or respond to readers in a timely manner. My association with VT since its founding in 2004 has been a very rewarding experience for me. Retired from both the Air Force and Civil Service. Went in the regular Army at 17 during Vietnam (1968), stayed in the Army Reserve to complete my eight year commitment in 1976. Served in Air Defense Artillery, and a Mechanized Infantry Division (4MID) at Fort Carson, Co. Used the GI Bill to go to college, worked full time at the VA, and non-scholarship Air Force 2-Year ROTC program for prior service military. Commissioned in the Air Force in 1977. Served as a Military Intelligence Officer from 1977 to 1994. Upon retirement I entered retail drugstore management training with Safeway Drugs Stores in California. Retail Sales Management was not my cup of tea, so I applied my former U.S. Civil Service status with the VA to get my foot in the door at the Justice Department, and later Department of the Navy retiring with disability from the Civil Service in 2000. I've been with Veterans Today since the site originated. I'm now on the Editorial Board. I was also on the Editorial Board of Our Troops News Ladder another progressive leaning Veterans and Military Family news clearing house. I remain married for over 45 years. I am both a Vietnam Era and Gulf War Veteran. I served on Okinawa and Fort Carson, Colorado during Vietnam and in the Office of the Air Force Inspector General at Norton AFB, CA during Desert Storm. I retired from the Air Force in 1994 having worked on the Air Staff and Defense Intelligence Agency at the Pentagon.